Jeffrey Lewis

Billion Dollar Baby

Kim Jong Un scares the Pentagon into blowing a ton of money on its failed missile defense.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Last week, newly installed SecDef Chuck Hagel sidled up to a podium, flanked by Undersecretary for Policy Jim Miller and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, to announce four significant changes to the U.S. missile defense program.

The big news, Hagel announced, was that the United States will add 14 ground-based interceptors to the ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system in Alaska.

We can disagree about how much to spend on what used to be called "national" missile defense (as opposed to point defenses against theater missiles), but does anyone think it's a good idea to spend more money on the current GMD system at Fort Greely, a.k.a. the Disasta' in Alaska, a.k.a. the Blunda' in the Tundra?

Last week, newly installed SecDef Chuck Hagel sidled up to a podium, flanked by Undersecretary for Policy Jim Miller and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, to announce four significant changes to the U.S. missile defense program.

The big news, Hagel announced, was that the United States will add 14 ground-based interceptors to the ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system in Alaska.

We can disagree about how much to spend on what used to be called "national" missile defense (as opposed to point defenses against theater missiles), but does anyone think it’s a good idea to spend more money on the current GMD system at Fort Greely, a.k.a. the Disasta’ in Alaska, a.k.a. the Blunda’ in the Tundra?

As we have discussed in this space before, a recent National Academies panel — stacked with many long-time supporters of missile defense — recommended completely replacing the current system with brand-new interceptors, new radars, and a new concept of operations. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the reason for reorienting the U.S. missile defense program: North Korea’s evolving ballistic missile threat. While the press focuses on North Korea’s December satellite launch using an Unha rocket, defense wonks are quietly fretting about a totally different missile. Last year, North Korea paraded six missiles that sure looked like intercontinental ballistic missiles through Kim Il Sung Square. North Korea calls the missile the Hwasong-13, although the Western press calls it the KN-08.

The Unha rocket that North Korea launched in December would struggle to get a nuclear warhead all the way to the continental United States; the KN-08 however is a different kettle of fish. (Sorry Alaska, you’re hosed either way. It’s not my fault you are so close that Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house.)

The public reaction to the KN-08 was muted — possibly because Bob Gates spent his last few months in office telling everyone he could that North Korea was about to show off a road-mobile ICBM. (This artful setting of expectations is one of the myriad ways by which Gates distinguished himself as one of our most deft public servants.) Well, that and because reporters routinely confuse the KN-08 with the Unha. The Japanese press, for example, ran a story claiming the Unha rocket was the Hwasong-13, despite the fact that North Korea conveniently labels its missiles with little plaques to the contrary.

Close examination of the KN-08 missiles themselves seemed to indicate they were mockups, rather than the real article. Those of us who lean toward wonky interests had a very interesting, though perhaps not terribly productive, discussion whether these missiles were better described as "fakes" or "missile simulators" that would be followed by real missiles.

Admiral Winnefeld had a chance to provide the authoritative view of the U.S. intelligence community during last week’s presser, but punted:

Q: But do you know if that that KN-08 is a real or a fake missile? And do you know whether it has the range to reach the United States?

ADM. WINNEFELD: We would probably want to avoid the intelligence aspects of that. But — but we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States and the — our assessment of — of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified. 

Hey, it’s a good thing you’re not asking us to spend like a billion dollars here in the middle of fiscal austerity, or I might get sort of annoyed that you don’t want to tell me why.

Oh, wait, you are asking us to spend a billion dollars in the middle of fiscal austerity. That’s right, when asked how much the 14 new interceptors would cost, Jim Miller said "it’ll be a little bit less than a billion dollars overall." Pretty soon we’ll be talking about real money. (A lot of scratched our heads at how 14 interceptors could cost nearly a billion dollars. George Lewis, writing on the blog Mostly Missile Defense, breaks out the likely cost factors if you are interested.)

It is possible that the U.S. intelligence community believes that North Korea is now deploying the KN-08 without having flight-tested it. In January, anonymous U.S. officials leaked a story to the New York Times about North Korea deploying some sort of new missile, but David Sanger and Thom Shanker garbled the story so badly no one could figure out which missile the source was talking about. (Sanger and Shanker reported that it was the "intermediate-range KN-08," which is a little like describing a "B-52 supersonic submarine.") The leak was presumably intended to put a little flesh on the bones of the annual testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who stated, "North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested." The best story we have on the subject is from Bill Gertz, which itself tells you something about where we are in terms of situational awareness.

Anyway, let’s stipulate that North Korea is now in the process of deploying the KN-08 without a flight test. Stranger things have happened.

We should do something about this. A cynic, however, might observe that adding 14 interceptors is a great trade for the North Koreans. They deploy a few missiles with exactly no successful flight tests and watch the United States spend one billion dollars.

Hey, at least the ground-based midcourse system works so well! That, by the way, is sarcasm. The assembled personages appear not to have read the National Academies report, which described the ground-based midcourse system as "fragile" and recommended stopping the procurement of the ground-based interceptor (sometimes derisively called the George Bush Interceptor.)

The last successful intercept test of the system was in 2008. Overall, the record of flight tests is 8 successes in 15 tries, or a bit over 50 percent. Little wonder the Missile Defense Agency likes to call flight tests "Pucker Time."

The GMD system performs as badly or worse on "intercept" tests — tests in which it tries to hit a target — with only two successes in five tries since 2005. Now, you might ask why there have been so few tests of this system since 2005. Well, I am happy to tell you. In 2005, the Welch Panel — chaired by the Washington institution that is General Larry Welch — concluded that ongoing test failures were undermining the deterrent value of th
e system. So, the Missile Defense Agency scaled back testing to less than one intercept test per year as, evidently, integrated flight tests hate our freedoms. Tests are also monstrously expensive, as George Lewis has noted, costing several hundred million dollars or more, depending on how much you spend on figuring out what went wrong.

The poor test record is important to understand why the National Academies concluded the GMD system was "fragile." When you hear a U.S. official expressing "high confidence" in our ability to intercept a North Korean missile, he or she is assuming the GMD system fires five interceptors at each incoming North Korean missile. (Do the math: A mere 50-50 chance of intercept repeated five times against a target will result in an intercept 97 percent of the time.)

The decision to add 14 interceptors for $1 billion, therefore, will pose an almost impenetrable barrier to North Korea — unless they build three more missiles. Salvo-launching five low-reliability interceptors is hopelessly inefficient. It is much easier for North Korea to build more missiles than it is for us to purchase five times as many interceptors. This is a mug’s game.

Now for the really fun part: Let’s say one of these interceptors does manage to hit an incoming North Korean missile. While the folks at Greely are celebrating with a little Harlem Shake, what’s happening with the other interceptors we shot off? If you said "They are lighting up the early-warning radars as they streak into the heart of Mother Russia," you win a prize! I am sure there is no chance that will spark an accidental nuclear war, the firing-missiles-into-Russia-on-purpose thing. There is no way the Russians could miss a North Korean missile launch or get an itchy trigger finger when they see missiles converging on their country.

Several of my colleagues have mentioned this problem, but it doesn’t seem to gain much traction. A couple of years ago, after the Russians admitted they hadn’t seen North Korea’s 2009 rocket launches, a colleague of mine drafted an open memo.


To: Combatant commanders, present and future

From: Posterity

One doesn’t want to judge hastily. So: if these accounts are basically accurate — I stress if — and until such a time as this mess can be cleared up, the actual use of GMD against a North Korean missile launch in the direction of North America would appear to be an act of madness.

So, let’s recap. North Korea parades six missiles though Kim Il Sung Square and then sends them out to South Hamgyong Province or some other barren piece of North Korean real estate. We commit to a $1 billion dollar decision to add 14 interceptors that totally solve the problem, provided the North Koreans don’t build nine instead of six ICBMs. By the way, the new interceptors won’t be ready until 2017, but we’re hoping to have a successful flight test at some point during the wait.

The only downside, assuming you view squandered defense dollars as stimulus, is, having shot down eight North Korean ballistic missiles, we now need to think about a plausible defense against the several hundred nuclear-armed Russian missiles that have been launched by whatever drunken slobodnik succeeds Vladimir Putin. Maybe a space-based laser? Think I am kidding?

Hagel’s other three decisions are also worth mentioning, although none is quite so ludicrous as the decision to spend a billion dollars on the 14 interceptors. Secretary Hagel re-announced Secretary Panetta’s decision to deploy a new TPY-2 radar to Japan. It is old news, but comparatively welcome at least in part because it runs zero risk of starting an accidental nuclear war with Russia.

Hagel also announced that, per congressional direction, the Defense Department will fund environmental impact studies for an East Coast missile defense site. As I have noted before, the National Academies recommended a third site in New England as part of a comprehensive program to replace the current GMD system. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to adopt the third site idea — but using the existing interceptors, defeating the entire purpose. Overall, Congress interpreted the National Academies recommendation to suspend further funding for the GMD system as a reason to increase that funding by $400 million. Not to be outdone, Secretary Hagel has now upped that figure to $1 billion dollars. For a system the National Academies study recommends replacing. Doesn’t anyone read anymore? I suppose I could suggest they light the money on fire, but as long as the East Coast site is a real policy option, I can keep making Mianus jokes.

Finally, Hagel did manage a bit of sensible policymaking. Hagel rather cleverly used congressional pressure for an East Coast site as an exit strategy from what was to be Phase IV of the European Phased Adaptive Approach — the plan to place superfast SM-3 IIB interceptors (which at the moment do not exist) in Poland to defend the United States from Iranian missiles (which at the moment do not exist). Normally, any change made by a Democrat to any missile defense architecture will be met with cries of perfidy from certain quarters, but only a few dead-enders seemed to notice the demise of Phase IV. The New York Times didn’t even mention that Hagel killed Phase IV in its initial news coverage. (The Washington Post has now published an editorial complaining that everyone missed the big news regarding the cancelation of Phase IV. I’ve posted some comments at

Phase IV of the EPAA was little loved. Congressional Republicans hated it because Obama put it in place of George Bush’s plan to put ground-based interceptors at a site in Europe. (Now what are they going to name after him?) The Navy hated the idea of going ashore, although they aren’t completely off the hook just yet. The Russians weren’t the least bit mollified, once they figured out the SM-3 IIB deployment would be every bit as worrisome as the old Bush plan. And the National Academies concluded that, sooner or later, the Iranians could shoot over the thing. The only people who loved Phase IV had a direct financial interest in the outcome,
and even they couldn’t even be bothered to pay one of the usual suspects to write a favorable op-ed about how Western civilization depended on no fewer than six SM-3 II B interceptors near Gdansk. Some people believe the Russians will be delighted, which I predict will last something like 15 minutes.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we have the first major announcement of Chuck Hagel’s tenure as secretary of defense. The questions were softballs that Hagel, Miller, and Winnefeld for the most part dodged. Everyone seemed satisfied that North Korea got the message, while South Korea and Japan were surely reassured. One billion dollars! That’s a heck of a commitment right there, pal. After a little more tough talk — Winnefeld announced that "this young lad," a.k.a. Kim Jong Un, "ought to be deterred" by all this — everybody adjourned in time for our regularly scheduled B-52 over-flight.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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